February 01, 2012

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By Molly O'Brien-Foelsch

Inside the busy medinas of Morocco, Bucknell University students witnessed social life unfolding in the zig-zagging streets as merchants prepared food and haggled with customers in Arabic. Five times a day, the Muslim call to prayer echoed from the minarets.

Atop the minarets were symbols hinting at the reason the group had traveled from central Pennsylvania to northern Africa — three spheres representing Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

"The spheres acknowledge the peaceful coexistence of these three religions," said Maxwell Stiss, Class of 2012.

Stiss and 16 other students were part of a Jewish heritage trip organized by Bucknell's Hillel program. The students traveled to Morocco in early January with Rabbi Serena Fujita, Jewish chaplain; Coralynn Davis, associate professor of women's and gender studies; and Lynn Pierson, assistant director of community service. As part of their tour, the group visited the mellahs, or Jewish quarters, of the walled-in old sections of the cities of Rabat, Fez, Marrakech and Casablanca. | See photos on Facebook

Fujita said she chose Morocco because of its interesting role in Jewish history. In the 1490s, she said, thousands of Jews were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. Many established communities in Morocco. "There were highs and lows," said Fujita, "but Morocco's history includes times when people have stood up and cared about Jews."

One of those times was World War II, when Morocco's King Mohammad V went against the direct orders of the Vichy government and protected "his Jews" from being sent to camps. After the war, most of the Moroccan Jewish community migrated to Israel.

Lois Gregory, Class of 2013, who initially signed up for the trip as a way to strengthen her skills in Arabic, said she was impressed with how well artifacts and symbols of the Moroccan Jewish heritage have been preserved. Those symbols include streets named Cohen and Epstein, and graves of Jewish "saints" — prominent members of the Jewish communities whom Moroccans still venerate.

"Though the majority of the people are Sunni Muslim, and Islam is a thread that binds Moroccan culture together, it seems as though respect is given to those who are not necessarily of the same faith," said Gregory.

In addition to touring the four major cities, the group went to the beach town of Essaouira, stopped at the well-preserved Roman ruins Volubilis and attended a lecture by Fatima Sadiqi, a feminist scholar and activist, who spoke about women's role in Moroccan society.

"One of the biggest surprises for me was the great variety of ways women dress and act in Morocco, a variety that reflects cultural diversity as well as social and legal changes," said Professor Davis, who coordinated the group's visit with Dr. Sadiqi.

Just as the Moroccan culture was diverse, said Fujita, so was the group from Bucknell. Among the students, faculty and staff were Jews, Muslims, Christians and non-religious persons. The students had ties to 12 countries, includingYemen, Uganda and Ethiopia.

Their experiences prompted the members of the group to examine their own beliefs as they traveled throughout Morocco.

"We had these amazing conversations on the bus," said Fujita. "We'd discuss how what we were seeing fit into our worldview."

"The trip reinforced for me how we are just a very small part of the world," said Pierson, who connects Bucknell students with local, national and international service projects through the Office of Civic Engagement. "We have so much to learn and experience to truly understand the world."

Contact: Division of Communications